2. OPPOSITION 101
Knowledge is power.
Information is knowledge.
Read, learn, act.
If not you, who?
If not now, when?
The power of our institutions is now too great, and this is cause for the utmost
concern. For example, all governments are imperfect, and abuse their power, and
hence their policies, practices and laws are imperfect as well. And in modern
society, with their greatly increased power you need only think of modern
weaponry, and techniques of information control and surveillance these
imperfections have been magnified.
This is the justification for many activist responses. Someone has to fight these
imperfections. We have to fight to protect our personal freedom, and we can never
forget that this is more important than protecting the power of the state (and
the other institutions).
Consider the response of civil disobedience. This occurs when activists take a
stand against an unjust law, or the unjust application of a law. In such cases
activists feel compelled to challenge the law, and many people often get arrested
as a result. Indeed, to accomplish change people have to get arrested; the law
is too rigid to allow it otherwise. One of the best examples of this is the civil
rights movement, which clearly demonstrated that in an inflexible and intolerant
society, nothing will change if change is not demanded, with this sacrifice.
What we now accept as so obviously right as to be self-evident, such as African
Americans being allowed to ride public buses or to eat in any restaurant, only
a few years ago was not. And we would never have gotten to this point if some
people, particularly the very first, including Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther
King, had not had the courage to get arrested (and worse) for their beliefs.
The prerequisite of activism is that you must know your cause; specifically, what
problem is your concern, why it is your concern, and how it needs to be addressed.
You must understand why you are being an activist! This is the only way to ensure
that your efforts support a worthwhile cause, that you have not been misled to
join some trendy mob, and that your work is not going to waste or causing unintended
consequences. Few cases are clear-cut, and the future is very difficult to predict.
You do not want to align yourself with a group against one tyranny, only to see
the successors turn into tyrants as well. It is essential that your activism be
based on understanding, not ignorance. Activism is a type of rebellion, and it
is subject to the pitfalls of being false or misdirected.
False rebellion is rebellion meant only to achieve power, but which is presented
as a fight for social justice. With victory, the rebels renounce their stated
aims and instead become the next group of dictators. For instance, many of the
individuals who fought colonial powers around the world, particularly in the decades
following World War II, were false rebels. When their nations achieved independence
they consolidated their power, often by using force against their former allies,
and then established autocracies.
Misdirected rebellion, on the other hand, occurs when rebels undermine their ethical
foundation by engaging in terrorism or by colluding with criminals. Examples of
this include the rebel groups in Columbia that attack civilians and that are involved
in the narcotics trade.
In addition, activism means being active! It means doing things, not being a spectator
to the actions of others. Supporting a cause, even with financial contributions,
is good, but it is not enough. You must become involved; you must do things yourself.
The main focus of activism should be on costs, on who incurs, and who pays, social
and environmental costs. The basic rule of life is that actions have consequences.
This can be restated as actions incur costs (and benefits). In a just social system,
the people or institutions that incur costs should pay them (or not incur them!),
but under our current system this is regularly not the case.
Suppose a corporation destroys a natural habitat, and then declares bankruptcy
when faced with litigation over this action. The corporation then fires its rank
and file employees, with no or limited compensation, but gives its executives
generous severance payments. The firings in turn have destructive effects on the
welfare, both physical and psychological, of the families of the employees, and
on all the members, and small businesses, of the local community.
As this demonstrates, the costs extend far beyond the initial effect of environmental
damage, they are in fact multiplied many times over, but the corporation is able
to escape from its responsibility completely. Indeed, the departing executives
may well profit handsomely.
So, who pays these costs? They were incurred, so someone has to pay them. The
answer is: we all do, through having a degraded society and environment, and through
the taxation requirements of government bailouts.
For modern activism to be effective, it must fight more than the recognizable,
or surface, problem, in this case the environmental harm. It must fight, and change,
the system that enables the burden of this destruction to be avoided by those
who create it, through a process that often leads to additional, collateral damage.
Institutions regularly engage in actions that generate enormous costs, and they
do this with impunity, knowing that they will not be held to account. The following
are a few examples. I leave it to you to consider fully their consequences: the
costs that result.
1. Corporations exist solely to earn profits. Hence:
- Corporation A, lets call it Nike, relocates a plant to a developing country
to lower its labor costs, and to avoid having to satisfy modern job standards.
In the process, it fires all of its local employees.
- Corporation B, lets call it Wal-Mart, recognizing that with proper conditioning
consumers will concentrate on price to the exclusion of any other product characteristic,
supports the conditioning through advertising and then constructs major outlets
in any communities where local officials can be persuaded to change zoning laws
and give them access to land. All smaller, traditional stores become price non-competitive.
Community sprawl, with greatly increased road traffic, and the destruction of
local natural habitat from derivative developments, erupts around the outlets.
- Corporation C, lets call it Unocal, unwilling to accept the evolved competitiveness
of the oil and gas industry, looks for niche opportunities in countries ruled
by dictatorial regimes, that other companies have shunned, and where no costs
have to be born; where the regime, lets call it the military dictatorship
in Burma, will plunder the environment, including clear-cutting pristine rain
forests; will engage in ethnic cleansing call it what it is, mass murder
along a pipeline route; and will provide slave labor, such as for access
roads for the pipeline, as required.
2. Governments that threaten or engage in military conquest: to suppress democratic
desires (Chinas threatened invasion of Taiwan); to deny the human rights
of a religious or ethnic group (Israels apartheid treatment of the Palestinians);
or to ensure that the dominant political party retains power, and also to divert
attention from their failings (the Bush Administrations invasion of Iraq).
3. The extremist splinters of Islam, including those resident in Afghanistan,
Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Palestine,
the Philippines, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, which, ignoring that Islam is a tolerant
religion, actually go so far as to subvert their faith, to bring dishonor upon
it (and their nations), by using it to justify terrorist acts.
4. Various and manifold media, which with a bias or outright lies report on social
disputes so as to create additional controversy, to increase their sales and also
the possibility that new, newsworthy events, involving the deaths of many,
many people, will occur.
As these examples show, there is no credible restraint against modern social institutions.
They blindly pursue their needs, without regard to the consequences. (In their
view, the end justifies the means.) Only activism, the voluntary rejection of
and opposition to such institutional behavior, by large numbers of individuals,
offers any hope at all.
Also, the above examples demonstrate one cold, hard fact about the modern social
system: we can no longer believe anything that any institution says (or any photo
or video clip), without at least one independent confirmation. They believe it
is their right to lie to us, and they base this right solely on the justification
that to do so is in their best interests. There is no consideration of the means.
It is only the end their end that counts. In this case, both the
means and the end are unethical. (This is also an example of doublethink.
Institutions believe they are obliged to lie to us; but, conversely, we must always
be truthful with them.)
In addition to the hurdle of marshaling activism, of instigating real opposition,
there is the practical issue of measuring these costs. How do you measure the
costs of habitat destruction, or media hate mongering? This is the loophole that
the institutions have used to escape responsibility. And, it is particularly problematic
with regard to the real but intangible costs that they regularly incur, such as
their negative effects on personal psychology and the derivative consequences
of this on community welfare and harmony.
However, the problem of creating methods and standards of social accounting is
beginning to be addressed. Measurement systems for such costs are being researched
and developed. Indeed, with activist pressure they could even be made the subject
of research by the corporate world, which already has experience with accounting
for intangibles, through the valuation techniques that have been developed for
such things as brands and trademarks. Social costs could be researched through
the IASB, or International Accounting Standards Board, then incorporated into
GAAP, or generally accepted accounting principles, and then propagated around
the world through such institutions as the WTO, or World Trade Organization.
It is not going to be easy, though. For example, consider the just mentioned psychological
costs. One way to estimate them would be to calculate the total amount spent on
psychologists and psychiatrists, on the entire mental health care industry, including
all its drugs. This is a sum that can be approximated. Of course, such a figure
would still be too low: much mental illness goes untreated. (On the other hand,
some psychological costs result from individual behavior, not institutional.)
Then there is the question of how to allocate it among the various social institutions,
and how to get them to pay. It is rather farfetched as well to imagine, at least
at the present time, that the WTO would assist in such a process.
As another example, of research that has already been done, it has been estimated
that the vast forest fires in Indonesia in 1997, and the haze that these fires
produced, had an economic cost of $4.4 billion. (Source: United Nations Economy
and Environment Programme for Southeast Asia) The fires were predominantly caused
by illegal forest clear-cutting by rubber and other plantations, and this clear-cutting
was tacitly approved by the then Indonesian dictatorship. (Suharto was the dictator
at the time, and although the nation has now made its first steps toward becoming
a democracy, such burning continues on an annual basis.) The estimate includes
timber destruction, lost agricultural production, the loss of forest benefits
for traditional local communities, including food, water and medicinal plants,
and an estimated contribution to global warming. It does not include the lives
of some three hundred people who died in a plane crash in Sumatra and other haze-related
accidents. And, after all, how does one value a human life, or the lives of all
the animals killed in the fires? Nor does it include the decline in the quality
of life, for all the people and species that had to live in the haze-ridden region.
Because of these problems, with checks and balances, and cost measurement and
collection, institutions and their executives have been able to escape accountability
and blame. You could say that the consequence for them is that they have limited
liability. The ultimate goal of activism, then, is to get institutions and
their executives to behave ethically. They must be made to accept blame and responsibility
for their misdeeds. They should be encouraged not to incur these costs, but if
they do, they must be forced to pay them.
© Roland O. Watson 2005